Interview with Michael Nusair from Tastyburgers.ca & Michaeleats.com

Burger Commandments

Interview with Michael Nusair from Tastyburgers.ca and Michaeleats.com
Monday, May 12 2014

The Backstory

I became aware of Michael’s work about a year ago when I found his website Tastyburgers.ca. I immediately marked it down as Toronto’s only “burgerdown” an idea as similar in concept and method to Toronto Phodown as they come.

Michael, moreover, in seeking Toronto’s best burger, tugs at my heartstrings in a different manner. Having spent the bulk of my life in the south of the U.S., a love of burgers was fired within me from a young age (for better and for worse). Long story short (too late): Michael is doing important work by performing an in-depth study of the hamburger in Toronto, both seeking to rate each one on his four-point scale and performing a longitudinal study, tracking trends in burger preparation over time. I should also note he’s been a hell of a lot more consistent than my fledgling project, which has become more travel and general food blog than a proper phodown.

The Interview

Toronto Phodown (TPD): Hi Michael, thanks for doing this.

Michael Nusair (MN): No problem!

TPD: What is the genesis of your love of burgers?

MN: I’ve loved burgers for as long as I can remember. I honestly don’t think there was one single “aha!” moment for me, burgers have just always been something I’ve been into.

I will say that there are a couple of things that really got me to start thinking more seriously about hamburgers, and provided the impetus for Tasty Burgers. The first thing is the blog Serious Eats, and specifically their sub-blog A Hamburger Today. I’ll admit that Tasty Burgers is more than a little bit inspired by that site.

The second thing is George Motz’s great book, Hamburger America. Obviously there are no Canadian burger joints in that book, but it’s well worth a read regardless.

Between that book and that blog, and getting increasingly frustrated with the fact that no one was writing about burgers in Toronto in a way that I deemed satisfactory, Tasty Burgers was born.

TPD: What caused you to settle on the 0-4 omnibus Tyrion scale? As you know, I prefer a more specific set of metrics – I could easily see you considering such a thing at some point in Tastyburger’s history (e.g., 0-4 for the beef; 0-4 for the bun, etc). [Editorial Note: At this point I was under the impression that the images Michael uses for his rating scale were those of Tyrion Lannister.  I was mistaken.]

2-5

MN: I feel like, for the most part, I want the review to speak for itself. I do get a little bit frustrated with the four star rating system sometimes, because, for example, some places I gave three stars to are markedly better than other places that got the same ranking. But not better enough for a 3.5.

If anything, though, I’d change the rating system to something even less specific. Like a Siskel & Ebert style thumbs up or thumbs down. Obviously the more specific scale is working for you, but I honestly have no idea what the difference would be between, say, a hamburger that deserves 8.5 out of 10, and one that deserves 8.6.

TPD: Speaking of your rating scale, why the Dink?

MN: That’s actually Samuel L. Jackson from Pulp Fiction! Hence the name. (“Mmm-hmm, this IS a tasty burger!”)

Speaking of Game of Thrones though, that show and Tasty Burgers are pretty much exactly the same age. Thrones premiered in April of 2011, and I posted my first review in May. Coincidence?? Yes. Yes it is.

[Editorial note: this is very embarrassing for me]

TPD: I noticed you often defer to the restaurant when choosing a burger to rate, ordering their specialty. While this may certainly be a fair way to go about things, do you ever worry you sacrifice some empirical rigor? For instance, the special at each restaurant may be quite different, whereas ordering a plain burger at each would yield more comparable ratings across restaurants.

MN: Yeah, that was definitely on my mind a lot when I first started the blog. My thinking is that I want to review whatever the restaurant feels is their signature item. There have been a few times where I thought that the signature burger was just too heavily condimented, and in those cases I got something simpler. But for the most part I think it’s probably worth sacrificing a little bit of consistency to provide a more generally helpful review; I think more people are going to want the restaurant’s signature burger, and will be looking to see how that tastes.

TPD: Which of the Ten Burger Commandments is most often broken?

MN: A few years ago I would have said the fifth commandment (“Thou shall not mix onions, garlic, breadcrumbs, and/or any kind of spices into your hamburger”), but I feel like Torontonians have slowly realized over the years that all you need to make a great burger is good quality beef. A lot of older places still serve meatloaf burgers, but very few new ones do. Thankfully.

So now I’d say it’s the third one (“Thou shall not use beef that is too lean”). It’s absolutely insane to me how many places get this wrong. I think a lot of places are under the misguided notion that they should make their burgers leaner so that they can be healthier, which is absurd. I also think that a lot of places like to advertise that they make their burgers out of cuts like sirloin, because it sounds fancier, not realizing that sirloin is probably the worst cut of beef to make a burger out of. Juiciness comes from fat. If you make a burger out of lean beef and cook it past medium (which 90% of Toronto burger joints do), it’s going to be dry ten times out of ten. That’s not my opinion, that’s a fact. So it happening so often in Toronto is as upsetting as it is baffling.

TPD: You note the smashed/griddled burger is especially popular right now in the GTA. All else equal, do you prefer a smashed griddled burger or one cooked on an open flame?

MN: I don’t know, they’re both pretty great. I guess I’d say griddled, because it’s so much easier to find a really good griddled burger in the GTA. But there’s something infinitely satisfying about a really thick, juicy, flame-grilled burger made with great quality beef.

TPD: Perfect beverage pairing with a burger?

MN: I tend to order Sprite or 7 Up with the burgers I review, so I’ll say that. But really, any soda will do. A burger, fries, and a soda — is there a finer combination? The answer is no.

TPD: A theme of your reviews is your consistently chiding restaurants for their beef (e.g., the sausage texture of processed meat, overcooking, use of frozen patties, etc). Fresh, non-lean beef, simply prepared seems quite easy to do – why are so many Toronto restaurants failing?

MN: I have no idea! It’s madness to me. It really is. A really good burger is so simple — just get really good quality beef, make sure it is sufficiently fatty (preferably in the ballpark of a 70/30 lean-to-fat ratio, and certainly nothing leaner than 80/20), grind it coarsely without over-handling it, season it with salt and pepper, and then cook it over high heat so a crust forms. That’s it! Don’t mix stupid gunk in there, don’t use lean beef, and certainly don’t use industrially-made frozen patties. This isn’t high-end French cooking. It’s easy enough that every burger joint should be serving a great burger, and yet most don’t. I don’t get it.

TPD: Besides burgers, do you have any other food-related obsessions?

MN: I think I’m just generally obsessed with food. There are few things in life more satisfying than a really great meal.

TPD: Harder to get right, a bowl of pho, or a burger?

MN: I’d say in theory the pho should be harder to get right, but I’ve seen burgers messed up in so many baffling ways that I think I’d have to go with hamburgers. I’ve never had a bowl of pho even close to as bad as the worst burger I’ve eaten. Then again I’ve had maybe a dozen bowls of pho in my life, so I’m probably not the right person to ask.

TPD: Thanks again!

MN: No problem, Jason.

Interview with Debbie Wong from Debbie Wong’s Wok and Gong

Debbie Wong Banner

Interview with Debbie Wong from Debbie Wong’s Wok and Gong
Wednesday, April 30 2014

The Backstory

I met Debbie Wong a long, long time ago. Back when eatvancouver was still a thing and “phodown” a word that had crossed nary a set of lips.

This was back in Vancouver, where Debbie was an actress and culinary professional. Now she’s living in Montreal (but makes frequent trips to mainland China), and has combined her passions into a hit online cooking show. Rare it is that one finds an outlet for all of one’s passions and so I’m absolutely over the moon that Deb’s doing this.

The Interview

Toronto Phodown (TPD): Hi Debbie, thanks for doing this interview.
Debbie Wong’s Wok and Gong(DWWaG): My pleasure!

TPD: I love your Wok and Gong, and I watch every episode. What caused you to conceive of such an idea?
DWWaG: Thanks so much! I appreciate the support. Food and entertainment are both a huge part of my life and who I am. I’ve always felt like they go hand in hand. I am a professional actor and a former professional cook, and for me, it was a natural thing to combine my passions.

TPD: Why a wok and a gong? Isn’t one or another good enough for you?
DWWaG: Debbie Wong’s Wok and Gong was a name that an old friend spouted out while we were cooking together about 10 years ago; and it stuck with me this whole time. For me, the Wok refers to the food, and the Gong is the entertainment; the gong show, if you will. (TPD: I will)

TPD: What’s the biggest challenge in producing an episode?
DWWaG: The intro. We always have to do several takes to get the right tone and energy. It’s the first take, so it’s the warm-up in a way. The rest of the filming is pretty smooth. Also, coming up with recipes that are true to my style, and the Wok and Gong brand.

TPD: You’ve recently introduced a new feature where you infiltrate your friends’ pantries and cook them a dinner with their own food. Are you worried you’ll draw a blank one day and just have to order pizza?
DWWaG: Not really. I truly enjoy the challenge. The idea is that they have a full fridge and pantry, and I’m just offering a new pair of eyes, using their ingredients in a way that they may not have thought of.

TPD: I recently finished a feature on my dining adventures in Hong Kong. What are you favorite tastes from that city?
DWWaG: I love Hong Kong. I’ve only visited a few times, but it’s the place I was born, and has become really close to my heart. It’s truly a crossroads of the world. You can get any kind of food, but my FAV is Cantonese BBQ. HK does it the best. The perfect Char Siu Fan (BBQ pork and rice). I love all food, but simple food done well is my go-to.

TPD: What’s the best pho you’ve ever had?
DWWaG: It’s not exactly a Pho. It’s sort of like a deconstructed Bun. It’s effing amazing and like nothing I’ve had before. It’s the Number 38 at Montreal’s Pho Tay Ho.
Grilled lemongrass pork in that fish sauce/vinegar broth, a pile of rice noodles and a mountain (I kid you not) of Vietnamese herbs—some I’ve only seen at this restaurant. –I’m talking 3 kinds of cilantro, mint, basil, green and purple shiso… I like dipping the noodles in the broth and eating it like a Zaru Soba.

Deconstructed Bun

TPD: What’s next for the Wok and Gong?
DWWaG: World domination. Lol. I would love to film a traveling food series. Debbie Wong’s Travel-along…?

TPD: What’s next for Debbie Wong, in general?
DWWaG: Exciting things. I can feel it. 😉

TPD: Rob Ford is coming home for dinner. What do you cook for him?!
DWWaG: Oh god, I’m thinking he’s not that adventurous… Spaghetti and meatballs?—That’s actually my favorite dish, believe it or not!

TPD: Thanks again Debbie!

Campagnolo (Little Italy South)

Campagnolo @ 832 Dundas Street in Toronto Ontario, call them @ (416) 364-4785

Visited: Thursday April 24th, 2014

The unfortunate thing about Toronto’s Little Italy is that there really aren’t many good Italian restaurants there. There are a lot of cheesy touristy ones. Sure, there are some quality family-run cheap slice and veal sandwich places (e.g., Bitondo’s) and an outpost of the venerable California Sandwiches chain. But the more upscale ones along College strike me more as cash-grabs aimed at the unsuspecting, tourists, or diners more interested in going to the nearby bars afterwards and don’t mind subpar food at a high price (ahem, Vivoli).

The outlier (but you have to walk several blocks south) is thought to be Campagnolo. And having recently moved to the area, I decided to treat myself and a friend to a night out here for having finished law school. I’m also here to tell you that what you’ve heard is right – this is an excellent restaurant.

One thing you might want to judge a restaurant on is how well they deal with tough situations. The night we visited they were clearly understaffed. Still, despite a few hitches (we waited about ten minutes for our drink order to be taken, and a rather long time between appetizers and entrees), the staff dealt with it with aplomb. Our sever, an effusive young gentleman was quick to ascertain what type of diners we were and soon figured out he could joke around with us. This is something I notice. One quibble is when asking about drink recommendations, he couldn’t help us until he found his glasses, indicating he didn’t know the menu. These are minor complaints.

It was hard to find a flaw with the food. We ordered the salumi plate, papperdelle with rabbit ragu, and a deconstructed chicken parm. The salumi plate was excellent across the board (pun intended), with a fatty venison salami as a standout. They do sort of coerce you you into getting the bread ($4) as a plate of salumi is really a rather silly endeavor without bread. While I quite enjoyed the perfectly cooked plate of pasta (the papperdelle was a revelation – someone in the kitchen knows exactly how long to cook fresh pasta), my friend’s deconstructed chicken parm was probably the standout. It consisted of a couple of ravioli, marinara, and a two perfectly cooked pieces of chicken. This was more-or-less everything you like about chicken parm without the heaviness. The “breading” in the classic Italian-American dish was even reflected in just an expertly crisped chicken skin (giving way to a still-juicy chicken breast – not an easy feat if you’ve ever tried to cook chicken breast through without drying it out).

I’d be happy to come back to Campagnolo, but it’d probably also have to be a special occasion type of night. While the food here is quite reasonably priced (around $20 for entrees), the wine mark up is a bit steep. I was drinking a Sangiovese by the glass that really shouldn’t have been out of the $10 range (it was $3-4 more).

I hate to end a review of a good restaurant on a negative note, so I’ll end it on a non-sequitur. Can someone explain this song to me? I can’t stop listening to it, but I can’t figure it out for the life of me.

Quarry Bay Restaurants

Eastern Promises 13: People I Will Remember

easternpromises

Being what people call a “foodie,” I feel as if dining should be all about the food for me. Indeed, my philosophy about eating has long butted up against that of traveling companions as I get dead set on finding the absolute best, most authentic place to eat when in reality we are starving and just need to find somewhere to refuel. I’ve also spent time with people more interested in the atmosphere – is there a view? is bright and airy? – than the food itself.

I’m not here to say that any one of these approaches is right (in fact, I’m still highly resistant to the last view above). But I have begun to realize there’s more to a dining experience than the food. I came to this conclusion as I was moving out of my first apartment in Hong Kong. In particular, I noticed that despite my desire to try the best food that area (Quarry Bay) had to offer, I was doing a lot of repeat dining. And it wasn’t because I thought the restaurants I had found were the absolute best in the area, but because I really liked the people running those restaurants and wanted to support them.

So here they are, the people I’ll remember in Quarry Bay.

Mr. Chris at Yo Bago (80 Pan Hoi Street, Quarry Bay, Hong Kong; call him at 2561 7700)

third HK 013

Mr. Chris grew up in Canada but moved back to his family’s home of Hong Kong a few years ago. Pulled in many directions professionally, entrepreneurship eventually called the strongest. And missing Canada, he decided to open up a bagel shop steeped in Canadiana. Allow me to draw your attention to:

third HK 012

Mr. Chris told me it was rough going at first. Quarry Bay is a tough nut to crack with a tremendous number of restaurants packed into a small area and a clientele that disappears when work lets out and the office buildings nearby begin to clear out. Things were touch and go for Yo Bago until the office drones slowly began to gave this little Canadian bagel shop serving Tim Horton’s coffee a shot. And when they did, Mr. Chris won them over with his product and congeniality.

Indeed, Mr. Chris had learned my name by my second visit to his shop. I often stopped by before ten to take advantage of the breakfast special, which includes a bagel sandwich and coffee for about $3 Canadian. A hard deal to beat. But living abroad can be lonely and sometimes I just wanted to come in and chat with Mr. Chris about business, news, and reminisce about our respective times in Canada.

Rina at Q-Bay Burger (Shop 5D2, ground floor Dragon View House, 6-16 Hoi Tai Street, Quarry Bay, Hong Kong; call her at 2568 7196)

third HK 011

Unlike Mr. Chris, Rina isn’t the outright owner of Q-Bay Burger. But she did develop the concept and manages the place. She also does pretty much everything else including cooking, serving and cleaning up.

Q-Bay dropped into my radar during one of my nocturnal nourishment-seeking walks. As I mentioned above, lots of Quarry Bay shuts down in the evening, as early as seven, so finding dinner could be a chore. Fortunately, Q-Bay stays open until about ten, making it a key part of my rotation.

Rina and her operation impressed me because of the quality and quantity of their output in the tiniest space that you could expect to hold a first-class burger joint. Her and “Auntie” operate out of a slim piece of real estate flanked by an electric griddle, a bit of counter space, and a fridge. This is not a job for the claustrophobic.

third HK 010

Still, she serves fresh grassfed New Zealand beef along with fresh and sometimes elevated ingredients, like a truffle mayo. One night they didn’t have any sweet potato fries ready, so Auntie pulled one out of the fridge and sliced it up in front of my eyes. The inside of the fries weren’t completely cooked, but it was still a great experience.

Bandy Cheng at Kam Heung Vegetarian (hop D10 & D11, 18 Hoi Tai Street, Quarry Bay, Hong Kong; call her at 2880 0173)

third HK 001

(Bandy didn’t want me to take a photo of her)

Bandy corralled me one day as I was walking by her vegetarian restaurant. It operates as both a cookery where you pick out your food and then a dining room next door with a few tables and an area where you can serve yourself all-you-can-eat soup and rice to go with the meals. I wasn’t particularly interested in vegetarian food, but I was taken by this restaurant’s charms. If you walk by in the morning you can see them cooking the food, the staff is sincere, and it’s a pretty good deal for about $5 for a sizable amount of food and unlimited rice and soup.

So there you have it.  As much as these restaurants defined my time in Quarry Bay, the people behind them left a deeper impression.  I still think about them often.

Tim Ho Wan

Eastern Promises 12: World Class Dim Sum at Tim Ho Wan with Various Parties

easternpromises

Tim Ho Wan, @ 9-11 Fuk Wing Street, Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong; call them at 2788 1226

Tim Ho Wan Ext

Outside of the canteen my Chinese family took me to every morning, Tim Ho Wan is the restaurant I returned to the most in Hong Kong. Generally, I try to not repeat myself too much when it comes to food, but Tim Ho Wan is worth the exception. Tim Ho Wan’s renown comes from allegedly being the lowest priced Michelin-starred restaurant in the world. There are multiple locations around town, but my first roommate – a legitimate foodie – told me the Michelin-starred chef actually worked out of the Sham Shui Po outpost.

Tim Ho Wan spread

My first experience at Tim Ho Wan was rather early in my journey. I met Mel and her friends from Calgary down Kowloon side back when the weather was still incredibly hot and Hong Kong was still quite new to me. Right off the bat it was clear that this was no ordinary dim sum shop. All the classics were present, but executed with a degree of skill and elegance that you really see don’t outside of super expensive joints. I was most impressed by the rice noodle rolls, which were extraordinarily delicate, verging on fragile. They specialize in char siu bao and indeed, it was done to the nines with a slightly sweet exterior that quickly gave way to rich barbeque pork.

My second experience was at the North Point location and it really wasn’t as good. I got most of the same dishes but everything was a little clumsier. For example, the wrappers on the har gao were thicker. I suppose this highlights the importance of a good chef.

Finally, Mikey and I went to Tim Ho Wan before our trip to Vietnam (detailed in Chin to Chin). This was a return to the Sham Shui Po location and a good idea it was. Once again, everything was excellent. With a more adventurous eater, I got to try Tim Ho Wan’s special pork liver rice rolls. It’s clear why these are a specialty with velvety pork liver lifting up a dish that is fine with shrimp, but spectacular with pork liver.

Tim Ho Wan har gao

Overall, I struggled to think of something wrong with this place. I suppose there are some dishes that are a bit pedestrian, like the har gao and the fried half moon pork dumplings. But at the end of the day, this is excellent dim sum at about $10 a head. It’s hard to beat.

Amoo’s House of Kabob (McLean)

Amoo’s House of Kabob @ 6271 Old Dominion Drive in Maclean Virginia, call them @ (703) 448-8500. [DR Link]

Amoo’s House of Kabob embodies the notion of family. For one, it’s a true family-run enterprise with several generations working towards a common goal, driven largely by the sheer will of their brother and son. It is also an incredibly family-friendly restaurant with an approachable staff and setting.

So with only a couple of days in DC, I decided to take my dad here for his 84th birthday. Based on everything I had read, it seemed like exactly the kind of restaurant he would love – honest, but elevated cuisine, and a staff that would go the extra-mile to make him feel like a VIP. I’ve been wrong about 90% of the things I’ve done over the past year, but this wasn’t one of them. Amoo’s was the perfect restaurant this night.

Amoo's Zereshk

It’s not hard to understand why Amoo’s has racked up such impressive scores on the various social dining websites. Throughout the meal, Chef Seb and his staff made us feel completely at home. Of course, in addition to the stellar service, a great deal of thought is put into the menu. I’ve never had Persian cuisine beyond the standard kabobs, but after one meal here I was left wondering what the heck was wrong with me. And I was also wondering why the heck Chef Seb doesn’t write a cookbook because there are not many people out there doing what he is doing, and people should know about it.

Amoo's Stuffed Squash

On this night we had a stuffed acorn squash filled with gheymeh bademjan (beef, yellow split pea and eggplant stew; $18), zereshk polo with lamb ($18), and a lamb chimichurra dish ($30). There were several bright spots and not a dark one. I focused on the zereshk and it was fantastic. The lamb, impossibly tender, was deftly flavored with saffron. And I have never seen such detail paid to rice, which depending on the bite, was light, sweet and sour with just the right amount of oil. The stuffed squash was similarly complex, with the sweetness of the squash playing well the earthy split peas.

I’m greatly looking forward to returning and trying some of the combination platters to see how Amoo’s does the standards.

A lot of nice things have been said about the restaurant, Chef Seb and his staff. I wouldn’t quibble with a single one.

Chin to Chin Recap

Toronto Phodown Presents, Eastern Promises Presents: Chin to Chin
“I Have Always Felt Reinforced and Stimulated by the Temperate Climate”

Chin to Chin chronicles my explorations of Vietnam and Hong Kong with Mikey (from @ZeroWritingCredits). This is the eleventh and final part of the story.

I Have Always Felt Reinforced and Stimulated by the Temperate Climate

The above is a quote from a quote from David Landes’ The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. It always stuck with me – maybe because of the diction. Probably not for the meaning. I never really gave the latter a whole lot of thought.

Goodnight vietnam 007

But having both lived in Hong Kong during the tail end of the summer, and experiencing several different climates as Mikey and I traveled from Hanoi’s downright chilly winter to sweaty, steamy Saigon, I think I finally got that quote’s full meaning. For those not familiar with Landes’ thesis, he uses a variety of cultural and anthropological measures to explain Western exceptionalism. My friend and erstwhile colleague Azim gave it to me, describing it as a companion piece to Guns, Germs and Steel which takes a more biological position. The quote is from one colonialist’s experience in the tropics, in particular how sapping he found the hot weather.

good morning vietnam 075

I’ve always been more of a summer guy, and it gets damned hot in DC in the Summer. I’ve also been to China in the Summer and experienced some steamy weather there. But I don’t think I ever noticed just how draining continued exposure to hot and humid weather can be before living in Hong Kong. Maybe people get used to it. I never did.

It’s also a good organizational mechanism for this recap, where Mikey and I started with boundless energy in Hanoi and eventually found ourselves taking long, long air-con breaks in HCMC.

I never really described it in earnest, but the trip started in Hong Kong, where Mikey and I luxuriated for about a day and half. Most of the ground has been covered elsewhere in the blog as we dined mostly on dim sum and cha chaan teng.

From there we spent a few days in Hanoi, where we tried desperately to make the most of every moment. It’s where I have the fondest memories and a place I would truly like to return. The old town is a very walkable area, a place where it’s easy to get lost but not entirely unpleasant when that occurs. It’s also where I had the most memorable pho experience of my life. Ha Long bay was breathtaking at times, but it’s hard to not wish we had been there in the summer, when chilly moments in the boat would likely be replaced with splashing in the sea.

From the North, we took a train down to De Nang. Mikey would probably want a redo on this one (he got sick on the train), but I loved it. Rushing through narrow passages in cities and innumerable rice paddies, the train trip made me feel more connected to the people and places of Vietnam than any other mode of travel.

I think we’d both count our first night in De Nang as the most memorable, mainly for the adorable little girl who brought us beer she bought at a local convenience store. We’d also both count touristy De Nang as a low point, both for narrowly making it out of there and for the lack of authentic food.

Finally, Saigon was as fast-paced, gritty and sweaty as we imagined. Still it was home to one of the best phos of my life, and for that I will always have fond memories.

As with any good trip, it wasn’t just the places we saw and foods we ate, but the people we met. Jonnie was an excellent tour guide in Ha Long Bay and I still think about him frequently. There was something his story about going to university, finishing early and his very strong pride in his work that makes him a memorable character. I’ll also never forget him breaking into song several times during the tour. Mr. Henry and Mr. David, two other travelers in Ha Long Bay also made a strong impression both for their long history of traveling and strong sense of camaraderie.

Goodnight vietnam 053

Annie, the (male) owner of the Pink Tulip, was also quite a character. We had read quite a bit about him as he replies to EVERY Trip Advisor review. This actually attracted us a great deal to the hotel as it was clear he cared a great deal about his business. It was also hard not to chuckle at the testy back-and-forths between him and guests with very innocuous complaints. A theme was guests’ discomfort with pushy massage salesmen working out of the hotel. Annie was adamant that the two businesses were separate but just shared space in the lobby. But in our experience this was a tenuous distinction as the night worker at the hotel also worked at the massage parlor during the day. Oh well.

Finally, there was Mr. Tong at the Royal Palace Hotel in Hanoi. While a smidge pushier than the staffers at the Pink Tulip, Mr. Tong was incredibly helpful and seemingly quite concerned that we left with a good impression of Hanoi.

Despite being exhausted by the end of the trip, Chin to Chin in Vietnam proved a transformative experience and one I hope to repeat one day.

Happy New Year from your Friends at Toronto Phodown

Eastern Promises

It’s truly been one hell of a year here at Toronto Phodown.

I suppose I’ve always been a glutton for progress, and 2013 certainly improved dramatically as it went along. The progress can be seen in the 100 Dates of Summer series (which will soon wrap up – I promise!), which began after a long, trying Winter and evinces both a culinary and metaphysical transformation.

It can be seen in Eastern Promises, where for the first time in my life I lived outside of North America in a country where English was not the dominant language. I still have very nostalgic and emotionally evocative memories about long MTR rides home after a big exam in Central Hong Kong, many beers, and a bowl of spicy soup with new friends in Wan Chai. Times when every worry I had about work, school, and Toronto couldn’t farther from my mind.

And it can be seen in Chin to Chin, where my brother and I cut a swath through Vietnam, and where I consumed the best pho I’ve ever had. 2013 was a year of many firsts, many high highs and low lows, a time when I figured a lot of stuff out, and of the 32 I’ve seen, one of the most memorable.

To 2014.

Vietnam to HK: The Reckoning

Toronto Phodown Presents, Eastern Promises Presents: Chin to Chin
Vietnam to HK: The Reckoning

Chin to Chin chronicles my explorations of Vietnam and Hong Kong with Mikey (from @ZeroWritingCredits). This is the tenth part of the story.

There wasn’t really a last day in Vietnam since we had to wake up quite early for a flight to HK. Moreover, unlike the Pink Tulip, our new hotel didn’t have breakfast included so there wasn’t a chance for some easy early morning eats. I will say, however, that the cab ride to the airport was great. It wasn’t via highway or freeway like you’d expect, but instead zipped through seemingly every side street in HCMC, giving us a great final experience watching the city wake up.

After a decent meal on the plane – Vietnam Airways treated us well throughout the journey – we arrived in HK and plotted our next moves. I had class from 6:30 to 9:30 (PM) and Mikey wanted to eke the most out of the remainder of his journey. We decided to check into our hotel (Mingle with the Star, a weird place, where you feel like you are in a little spaceship), FINALLY grab some BBQ at Joy Hing, and then check out my school.

joy hing roast goose

Joy Hing had been on our radar since Mikey arrived, but we hadn’t made it work up until that point. Tony Bordain recommended it in one of his HK episodes, and a friend from school swore by it. It turned out to be as good as we expected – truly a rare occurrence in most areas of life. We got roasted pork, pig and goose. The goose, as Bordain noted, was the standout. Dripping with goose-grease (a term I’ve been drying to use) it was subtly seasoned such that the flavor from the meat and skin shone through. The only complaint is that in the cold restaurant, it was really only warm for the first couple of minutes.

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Afterwards I went to class while Mikey messed around the campus, doing some live blogging from the computer lab. We ended our trip at a nondescript cha chaan teng where we had a perfectly competent chicken congee and beef chow fun.

Time seemed to fly from there as we crashed early and Mikey took off early the next morning.

Post mortem to come.

Last Day in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC)

Toronto Phodown Presents, Eastern Promises Presents: Chin to Chin
Last Day in Ho Chi Minh City (Day Eight in Vietnam): Thanksgiving Edition

Chin to Chin chronicles my explorations of Vietnam and Hong Kong with Mikey (from @ZeroWritingCredits). This is the ninth part of the story.

By this day in HCMC, the heat, humidity and general slog of living out of a suitcase had begun to wear on us. Still, it was Thanksgiving (ver. U.S.) and we didn’t want to waste our last (full) day in Vietnam. Unfortunately we had to check out of our comfortable abode at the Pink Tulip (we were paying day-to-day and they had sold our room). It wasn’t very difficult, however, to find a decent replacement just down the street.

After sorting that out, we took the number one bus down to HCMC’s Chinatown, home not surprisingly to the city’s sizable ethnic Chinese minority. Our focus was the area’s famous market – The Bình Tây Market and in particular, a chance to get some souvenir and gift shopping done, something we had been woefully negligent about.

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The main worry was that we didn’t know when to get off the bus, and outside of the primary tourist area we were staying in, English was not especially forthcoming in HCMC. Fortunately, the decision was made for us as the bus route ended at a station quite close to Bình Tây. We walked around the area, Mikey picked up some spices for his chef boss (Cake Boss?), and we had an interesting Chinese lunch in the market.

A post-prandial walk around Chinatown involved a few temples, and a lot of soul-crushing heat and humidity. We eventually caught a bus back to the hotel to rest for a bit and soak up some air conditioning prior to our Thanksgiving dinner.

Before heading out for dinner, we repeated our pattern of doing some live blogging at Trung Nguyen Coffee. Dinner itself was at Quan An Ngon, a widely-recommended restaurant known for assembling several street-food legends under one roof. It’s more touristy and pricey than most places we had gone to, but we thought it would make for a nice Thanksgiving meal. Although we got there at a reasonable hour – 9PM – things seemed to be shutting down and about 80% of the menu was unavailable. The best chefs must go home early.

Still, we cobbled together a pretty good meal. The highlight was some grilled steak served with toast and a spicy salt. Less good was a (grey, lifeless) pork salad. Mikey and I enjoyed our final night in Vietnam, but it would have probably been better to get to the restaurant earlier.

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Exhausted from a long day, we crashed early despite our hotel being placed directly above one of HCMC’s top nightspots.